Victorian dinner parties where associated with the upper class, not usually the middle class, and were attended by eminent guests of status. Lord Steyne, a character from the novel Vanity Fair, would have been invited to many such parties were he a real person who lived in that Era. The Victorian hostess had to consider three main things:
At Victorian dinner parties, the hostess invited guests from the upper class of society. Typically, she invited one guest of honor, an eminent gentleman (Margetson 73). She also looked to invite some guests with musical skills or entertaining abilities. The number of men and women had to be equal, since every gentleman was given charge of a single lady of similar rank whom he was to accompany into the dinning room. During the course of the night, he made sure that she had a pleasant time (Ferguson). Pairing men and women into such couples was easy for the hostess when her guest had a spouse -- since she was required by etiquette to invite the spouse of her guest in addition to him - but pairing was more difficult when she invited unmarried persons. When she had a single man at her party, the hostess had the duty of finding him a single woman to entertain; though this task was difficult because ladies did not accept invitations unless they had an escort already, for fear of being called "fast" (Margetson 73).
Pairing the guests was not the sole concern of the Victorian hostess. She had to make sure her house was in order, in particular, her parlor and dinning room, since the party was set in those two areas. First, guests would assemble in the parlor, where the pairing took place. Then, starting with the highest-ranking guest, each man escorted his lady into the dinning room, which the hostess decorated with opulence. After dinner, the ladies went back into the parlor for tea or coffee, while the men stayed at the table, talking, drinking and smoking. Next, the men went to join the women in the parlor. The ones who were too inebriated stayed behind. During this final part of the occasion, guests amused themselves with card games, magic tricks, and musical entertainment (Ferguson) .
The Victorian hostess had a primary goal in mind when she held a dinner party, and that purpose was to flaunt her status. She aimed to impress her guests with elaborate dishes. The food was served in two possible ways: a la Francaise(meaning that the course was placed in front of the hostess, carved, and passed around) and a la Russe (meaning that the already cut courses where brought to the table). The former way was popular in early part of the Victorian Era and was replaced by the latter way (Margetson 78). The guests examined their menus, always written in French while they awaited the first part of the three course meal. They were not expected to eat everything offered, and could pick and choose which foods they wanted as they sat around the ornate table, which usually had a decorative centerpiece, like flowers or a fruit pyramid (Dinner at Eight"). Some possible food items included soup, venison, poultry, vegetables, and for dessert, and imported fruits (Margetson 79). Oysters were also frequently served (Margetson 86). Here is a sample menu.
In sum, Victorian dinner parties were elaborate affairs. The hostess took care to plan the setting, food selection, and social pairing of her guests, who were usually from the upper classes. If her party was a success, with light conversation, compatible guests, and good after-dinner conversation, her status in society was augmented.
Margetson, Stella. Victorian High Society. New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1980.
Ferguson, Kristen. Dinner Parties in Victorian England. <http://cti.itc.virginia.edu/~stb9w/dinnerparties.html>.
Dinner at Eight: Victorian Dinner Parties. Victorian Lifestyles. 2004. <http://www.geocities.com/victorianlace25/dinner.html>.